Flying coffins of World War II

13-11-2017

America’s first military stealth aircraft – the Waco CG-4A combat glider – silently soared into World War II history 70 years ago, powered only by the prevailing winds and the guts of the men who flew them. 

Under veil of darkness on D-Day and other major Allied airborne assaults, the Waco glider carried troops and materiel behind enemy lines to take out key enemy defenses and transportation links. These humble gliders – engineless and unarmed – overcame perilous odds to make the first cracks in Hitler’s Fortress Europe. Yet their story is an obscure chapter in the Allied victory saga. 

Their moment in the spotlight of military aviation was fleeting. But in the pre-helicopter age, combat gliders represented the state-of-the-art in stealth, landing precision, and hauling capacity.

“Flying coffins.” “Tow targets.” Pilots and glider-borne infantry had colorful and well-earned nicknames for their ungainly planes. But according to at least one veteran flight officer, the most common moniker for the combat glider was way off base: “Silent Wings.” 

“For us it was louder than hell,” said pilot Donald MacRae , who flew troops into battle on D-Day  and in the invasion of The Netherlands. The glider’s spartan construction provided no insulation from the roar of the C-47 tow plane’s engines, the pounding of the natural elements, and the din of enemy anti-aircraft fire, he said. 

MacRae, who flew with the 37th Troop Carrier Squadron of the 316th Troop Carrier Group , said the glider had few provisions for passengers’ safety and none for their comfort. There were four basic instruments on the control panel, which the pilots mistrusted. Air pockets and 40-mph winds created violent turbulence. Enemy fire on descent was constant, and many pilots were taken out before they could land.

With no parachutes onboard, glidermen took pain to protect their pilots. According to MacRae, “Some of the guys found an extra flak jacket for me – not to wear but to sit on. They didn’t want anything coming up from underneath the plane to hit anything vital.” 

Of the 6,000 men trained as glider pilots, some had washed out of conventional pilot training and were given a second chance to fly. Others, like MacRae, had a civilian pilot license but were passed over for powered flight training. The possibility of officer’s pay and the chance to fly attracted a particular breed of risk-tolerant trainees, and the glider pilots’ maverick reputation quickly spread. Lieutenant General Gavin, James Maurice “Slim Jim” commander of the 82nd Airborne Division , lamented the pilots’ demeanor. But he also recognized the audacity of landing a glider in combat. “It is a chastening experience. It gives a man religion,” he said.

Germany was well prepared for a glider invasion of Normandy. Beachheads were guarded by anti-aircraft guns. Likely landing zones were saturated with “Rommel’s asparagus” –  a glider-smashing network of 10-foot poles wired together with explosives.

Glider pilots who participated in the Normandy landings were awarded the Air Medal  for their role in the Allies’ early successes on D-Day. Their role in Operation Market Garden was lauded, even though it was overshadowed by the mission’s overall failure to take the key bridge at Arnhem. Gliders were also central to Allied invasions of Sicily, Burma, Southern France, Bastogne, and the crossing of the Rhine into Germany in March 1945.

U.S. 2* Brigadier General. Deputy Commander 101st Airborne Division  Don Pratt   was the first killed General on D-Day, and crashed with his glider.

Like all Army Air Corps pilots, the glidermen wore wings on their chests. Theirs were special, with a capital “G” stamped in the center. Technically it stood for “glider,” but they were quick to tell anyone who asked that it really stood for “Guts.” The copyright is of Michael MacRae an independent writer.

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